It’s the living, not the dead who should decide this country’s future, says Have I Got News For You writer NATHANIEL TAPLEY
The Walking Dead is back on this week. A country in the grip of the undead, whose mindless consumption has caused the end of civilisation as we know it and thrown the world into an age of savagery and insane violence, will finally be able to watch series eight of Andrew Lincoln growling: ‘Carl! Earl! Daryl! Merle! Carol! Dale!’
Can watching zombies eat the brains out of the cast of This Life really dull the pain of knowing that our current course as a country has been decided by people who may have been dead for some time? And Norman Tebbit, who just looks like he has been?
At the end of last year, Steve Lawrence calculated that 120,000 people who had voted to leave the EU had already died, and, if the demographic trends from the referendum hold true they’re being replaced with overwhelmingly Remain-supporting young people.
Nick Clegg mentioned this again at the end of last month, to howls of outrage from the right-wing press, who were horrified that someone would have the gall to say that old people are more likely to die sooner than young people.
Dan Hannan popped up with: ‘Odd new doctrine from Clegg: keep re-running referendums in the hope that people who disagree with you will die off,’ hoping that no one would notice that he campaigned for years for a second referendum, because many people who had voted in 1975 had ‘died off’. Presumably in some suitably 1970s way: getting black-lung from kissing a miner in an electrical substation or drowning in a canal into which someone had kicked a particularly pleasing football.
Dan’s also, of course, neglecting the fact that that’s exactly what democracy is. Allowing people to decide who makes the laws to govern their life and reviewing those decisions periodically in case people have died or changed their minds. It’s why we have elections rather than seances to decide who gets to be the government. Yes, people get to change their minds. It’s fundamental to democracy to accept that, whether through death or circumstances, the opinions of the country tend to change. We didn’t just say that the country got a vote in 1832, so there’s no point in having any more votes.
That’s why Earl Grey is just a type of tea, rather than still being Prime Minister, his cobwebbed corpse hauled out for the state opening of parliament each year as technicians from Jim Henson’s Creature Studio operate his arms and legs like a bergamot-scented cadaverous Pinocchio with surprisingly advanced views on Home Rule in Ireland.
In the 1830s and 40s, the Chartists prepared a list of proposals which would, they thought, turn the United Kingdom into a real democracy. These included universal male suffrage, ending the property requirement for MPs, and having secret ballots.
However, being sensible Victorians of the sort that Dan so idolises, they stopped short of dangerously subversive ideas like votes for women or not putting orphans up chimneys.
These ideas were so inflammatory that when the petition was presented to Parliament, there were riots all across the country. Some 10,000 armed Chartists rose up against the government in Monmouthshire, and the government opened fire on them. Rioters in Birmingham did £20,000 worth of property damage, which is roughly six euros in today’s money.
By 1918, everything that had been in the Chartists’ Charter, ideas that had seemed so crazily radical 80 years earlier that the government had killed 22 protestors to silence them, was part of the British political system. There was a secret ballot, a salary for MPs, constituency sizes had been made regular, every man could vote and there was no property requirement for MPs. All of their democratic demands had been met. All but one.
The Chartists wanted annual parliaments. They wanted the people to have the right to change their mind about who governed them every year. That’s half as often as Michael Gove changes his mind about whether or not he will definitely not try be the Prime Minister.
During the recent clashes in Catalonia, many pointed out that the referendum was illegal because a referendum on secession was explicitly ruled out in the 1979 constitution. This, then, raises the same question: for how long should a democratic decision be binding?
In parliamentary elections we settle this by having periodic elections. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decided that we needed five-year parliaments as opposed to the four-year terms of pretty much every other civilised nation. This is either because British people are 20% less prone to changing their minds like flighty Continentals or British politicians are 20% more attached to getting paid for being MPs.
In referendums, however, there is no guarantee that a question will be revisited. Can members of one generation give away the rights of succeeding generations to decide how they are governed?
For democrats, the answer must be ‘no’. It is your most fundamental right, in a democracy, to have a say about the system in which you are governed. There should be no such thing as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change. A democratic system must have the scope to change whenever the will of the people changes.
If the people are sovereign (and it’s worth remembering that in the UK they are not, the sovereign is sovereign and the people are a sort of useful meat paste used for paying for castles) they should be able to, whenever they choose, throw off the dead hand of the actually dead and decide for themselves what future they want.
So, how long should a referendum result be taken to represent the will of the people, rather than just the people who happened to be alive in June 2016? Given everyone’s agreed we can have multiple referendums on EU membership, when should we have the third? The Referendum Party was founded in 1994, 19 years after the first referendum, so presumably everyone can agree that a referendum result holds no force 228 months later. Which leaves quibbling over details. At what point between 15 and 228 months should the British public be allowed to revisit this decision? To me, 34 months sounds about right. About 15% of the maximum possible length. Which takes us to, oh, March 2019. Which is handy. We need another referendum on the final deal, and we need it for reasons of democracy. The will of the people isn’t a pleasant side dish to be sampled when we are feeling like trying something a little naughty, the consent of the governed is all that gives governmental authority its force.
To attempt to rule us by brandishing the cobwebbed opinions of the dead is a trick governments love to use. They must not be allowed to get away with it.
Nathaniel Tapley is an award-winning comedy writer-performer, who has worked on Have I Got News For You, and the News Quiz, among other things